Many people can remember a teacher who stood out during their educational journey. In Claire Overstake’s case, it is Dr. Walter Smith, currently a professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. When Dr. Smith was a faculty member in 1980 at the University of Kansas, Overstake was a student in his class pursuing a degree in education. “Dr. Smith was one of the few teachers that I remember because the things he did stuck in my head and influenced the way that I still teach to this day,” says Overstake.
The bond between Overstake and Smith is extraordinary: Both have received presidential awards for their respective contributions to the nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) enterprise: Overstake, who now teaches science and mathematics at a middle school in Wichita, Kansas, received the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) in 2010, the nation’s highest honor for STEM teaching: and Smith is one of the inaugural recipients of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM 1996), the nation’s top honor for STEM mentoring. This is an uncommon connection not lost on either one of them.
“When you have a passion for sharing the world around you and what it teaches us about the sciences, it’s not surprising to me that my students and I are driven to excel and to earn recognition for what we do,” says Smith.
As the nation recognizes the special contributions of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week in May, the careers of Smith and Overstake demonstrate the enduring commitment and contributions of mentors and teachers.
Exemplary Science Teaching, Mentoring
Overstake is one of ten PAEMST recipients that Smith has either taught or mentored. They are among a total of more than 750 science educators he has mentored in the span of a 45-year-long career. “When I began recently compiling the list of my students who had received the PAEMST award, the total number actually surprised me. I have had many great students,” Smith reflects.
Smith also developed a science teaching curriculum for elementary through high school age girls, called COMETS (Career Oriented Modules to Explore Topics in Science). The guide, published by the National Science Teachers Association, is used globally by science teachers to encourage students, especially girls, to pursue STEM careers. Smith also holds workshops to help teachers find ways for their students to collaborate with students in other countries in order to engage in science and engineering-based topics.
Nearly 35 years after she took Smith’s class, Overstake remembers an experiment Smith conducted for her class of future science educators that provided them with a technique for encouraging a science mindset in youngsters. Smith recalls it as well: “I took a pie plate and covered half of it with a wet paper towel so that there was a lighted half and a darkened half of the container,” Smith says. “I put the roly poly bugs in the center and waited. Over time, the class observed how many of the roly polies moved to the shaded moist area and how many remained in the light. After students make their observations, they want to know the reasons why.”
Smith points out that the role of teachers in that experiment is to give students a structure for their activities and then introduce the formal vocabulary tied to the science, such as behavior and tropism. With that shared vocabulary, Smith says students can then communicate their findings or ideas to others.
“I think every science educator in the world uses some sort of hands-on or experiential learning that helps students connect with the world and try to interpret their experience,” Smith says. He explained that stellar science teachers, like Overstake, embrace the excitement of translating real-world observation into scientific methods to help improve student engagement in the classroom.
Motivating Future Scientists
Overstake credits Smith with igniting the creativity she brings to her classroom daily, which ultimately led to her receiving the highest honor in science and mathematics teaching.
“He affected everything that I do in science, and even in math, which I have taught as well. My approach is always let's do hands-on stuff, let's get the kids out of their seats, let's allow them to see what they can do and not what I can show them.”
Another factor in Overstake’s recognition as an exemplary science teacher is her incorporation of music and song in her lessons. She says her students enjoy swapping out the words to Meghan Trainor’s hit tune, “It’s All About That Bass” with “It’s All About the Laws” to learn about Newton’s Laws of Motion.
Overstake also allows her students to experiment with science using their own ideas.
“I had eight or 10 boys in one class that wore braces when we were learning about electrical currents. They wanted to find out whether their braces would conduct electricity. I told them I didn’t know, but first we needed to check online to make sure it wouldn't burn their teeth up. These 7th graders hooked all their braces together using a copper wire. They put a light bulb on one side and a battery on the other. When that light bulb lit up, they were so excited about how electricity worked because it was something they wanted to do,” she says.
Promoting Science Together
Although Smith and Overstake lost contact over the years, they were recently reunited as part of a PAEMST and PAESMEM joint webinar hosted by NSF on January 31. The webinar focused on STEM mentoring and teaching best practices. During the discussion, Overstake lauded Smith for his influence on her in being a role model for her students.
“I am very careful about what I say and do in the classroom. I always build up my students. I try to lead by example at my school, similar to the way that Dr. Smith was an example for me when I was in college. Leading by example is an unconscious way we can mentor our students,” says Overstake.
The webinar also encouraged potential K-6 grade PAEMST nominees to submit applications by the May 1 deadline. PAEMST nominations for science and mathematics teachers of grades 7-12 open in the fall of 2018.